A GLOBE-trotting, sports-loving priest from America will start a new chapter at a 1,000-year-old Benfleet church.
Father Leslie Drake, originally from New Hampshire, will take over at St Mary the Virgin Church, in High Road, Benfleet, next week.
Churchwardens and members of the congregation will welcome Mr Drake during a special ceremony next Wednesday, which will also be attended by clergy officials including the Bishop of Chelmsford – the Rt Rev Stephen Cottrell – and the Bishop of Richborough, the Rt Rev Norman Banks.
Mr Drake, 65, has spent 30 years serving the church in the States, but has most recently been in charge of UK parishes in Enfield and Wimbledon. He has also worked in Ireland.
Married to Yolanda and with four grown-up children, he is known for his fun-loving personality, his passion for trains and sports and his penchant for the odd cigar.
Churchwarden Terry Babbage said: “We are thrilled to have got him.
“He has a great personality. We have been without a permament priest for almost two years now, so this is great news.
“His arrival will mean we can do things we haven’t been able to for a while, including hopefully opening up the church every day to the community.”
St Mary’s was left without a leader after former priest Lee Bennett left to join a new Roman Catholic church order, the Ordinariate, which was set up by the Pope for disaffected members of the Church of England.
Father Bennett chose to make the move in protest at moves to modernise the Church of England, which included the controversial ordination of female clergy and same-sex marriages.
Mr Drake’s induction service will start at 7.20pm when a procession of bishops, other clergy and Benfleet dignitaries leave the Moorings, next to the Anchor pub, and make their way across the road to the church.
The service will see the priest officially given the keys and a map to the parish before he blesses the holy water and the church bells are rung.
Mr Drake, who was educated in Boston and also had his own church in South Carolina, said: “I’ve been all over the place, but am thrilled to come here to Benfleet. It’s very much a traditional English town.
“I really want the church to be at the heart of the community and I particularly want to engage youth groups.”
St Mary’s is steeped in history and it is believed the foundation stones of the church were laid 1,000 years ago to mark a victory against the Vikings at Benfleet.